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Installation views of 8490 Days of Memory...
8490 Days of Memory

ik-joong kang
at the whitney museum
at philip morris

by Joan Kee

The Korean American artist Ik-Joong Kang 
is primarily known for mosaic-like installation 
works made up of 3 x 3-in. squares 
representing various aspects of his life, 
ranging from the names of artists who 
influenced him to notes on his masturbation 
practices. His most recent work, the tour-de-
force 8490 Days of Memory, ventured into
history via Kang's memories of his childhood in
the impoverished, war-torn Korea of the early 
The work represents a colossal effort--a 
larger-than-life statue of General Douglas 
MacArthur was constructed from chocolate 
bars and stands in the middle of the 
gallery on a low dais made of cubes of 
resin. The walls of the gallery are covered 
with Kang's trademark squares, here made of 
chocolate and imprinted with U.S. military 
insignia. The work underscores the powerful 
way that memory can function through 
vision, smell and even sound--notably the 
Tom Jones hits, popular in the U.S. and
Korea in the 1960s, that Kang has playing 
in the gallery. Deployed in a relatively 
small space, the work poses a kind of 
sensory overload from the strong smell of 
chocolate, the maculation of the space 
through the repeated squares and the giant 
statue. The physical disorientation 
suggests the similar fragmented process of
the recollection of long periods of time.
Chocolate is a powerful metaphor to Kang. 
As a rare luxury in post-war South Korea, 
casually supplied to local children by the 
victorious G.I.s, chocolate symbolizes the 
sweetness of American plenty while its 
silver foil is a literal representation of 
the glittering promise of wealth and the 
American dream. Kang drives home this point 
by incorporating MacArthur, who gained a 
place in the hearts of Koreans (and a place 
in their parks, through proliferating
statues) by masterminding the Inchon 
landing, a crucial turning point in the 
Korean War. The memorialization of the past 
is also emphasized by small toys and other 
childhood memorabilia set within each 
transparent resin block under MacArthur's 
statue. Each gonggi (jacks) set, each 
eraser and each pair of doll shoes are 
fossils embedded forever in Formica, as if 
to suggest the enduring quality of Kang's 
Despite the importance of memory and the 
past, Kang's work is very much a work of 
the present, avoiding Korean American 
artistic cliches that attempt to compensate 
for lack of substance by using inscrutable 
components of the past. Chocolate is a 
double entendre metaphor because when 
exposed to heat, it rapidly melts and this 
property parallels Kang's idea of America's 
waning military power in both Korea and the 
world. Likewise, the childhood memorabilia 
used are not actual objects hoarded from 
yesterday but objects that can be found or 
purchased anywhere in Korea today. Such an 
incorporation of present objects implies 
that memories are often remembered using 
the constructs of today. The conflicting 
ideas of the present and the nostalgia of 
the past give Kang's 8940 Days of Memory a 
pulsating energy that reminds the viewer 
that the past and present undergo a process 
of constant interaction.
Ik-Joong Kang, 8940 Days of Memory, Whitney 
Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, 
120 Park Ave. (E. 42nd St.) New York, N.Y. 
10017, July 11-Sept. 27, 1996.
JOAN KEE writes on contemporary 
Asian and Asian American art.

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